Monday, March 8, 2010

Smith : "TINCLADS IN THE CIVIL WAR: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865"

[ Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865 by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2009). Softcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:340/431. ISBN:978-0-7864-3579-1 $55 ]

With previous books detailing the career of Le Roy Fitch and the operations of the U.S. Navy timberclad gunboats, Myron J. Smith's Tinclads in the Civil War is a continuation of what has become something of an informal series dealing with the naval war on the western waters. Tinclad warships were basically purpose built or retrofitted steam powered (screw or side/rear paddle) river vessels of very shallow draft, armed with casemated guns. This firepower, limited [boiler plate over timber] but beneficial protective armor, and ability to go just about anywhere the ground was damp made them excellent multi-purpose tools for the Union's waterborne war effort. The author perhaps put it best in his enumeration of their duties as "dispatch and light replenishment vessels, towboats, patrol boats, swift raiders, minesweepers, troop ship guardians or anchor pickets, and gunfire support vessels" (pg. 2). The relatively swift tinclads were also very effective in counterinsurgency operations, as guerrillas were generally lightly armed and without artillery. Multiple examples of the many types of operations listed above appear in the text.

Clearly, covering all tinclad operations between 1862 and 1865 would take multiple volumes and thousands of pages, and Smith wisely elected to concentrate his own study on those events where tinclads occupied center stage. Too multitudinous to even summarize here, Smith's study encompasses events on all the major waterways of the Trans-Mississippi and western theaters where tinclads roamed. Some incidents and operations are familiar, but many more inform the reader in great detail of more obscure events. The volume and depth of information provided will be most welcomed by dedicated students with specialized interests.

Smith's bibliography lists an exhaustive array of primary and secondary source materials, and his explanatory notes are meticulously crafted and expansive. Tinclads is illustrated throughout, with numerous photographs of officers and vessels. The first appendix is a complete listing (in tabular format -- vessel name & number, drive rig, date of purchase or capture, date of commission, and armament) of U.S. Navy tinclads in order of acquisition, and the second provides some basic data on the postwar fate of the vessels. On the negative side, more and better maps were needed and too many typographical errors remained in the finished product. It's also a shame no way could have been found to publish the manuscript in hardcover format as the buyer will find it to be quite useful as a reference book.

However, here, as with the author's previous volumes, the positive elements far outweigh the negative ones. Myron Smith's analysis and encyclopedic rendering of Civil War tinclad operations marks yet another significant step forward in our knowledge and appreciation of the naval war on the western waterways. Aimed most directly at the specialist reader, Tinclads is arguably the best single source available on the subject.

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